Foreign Policy in the DeSantis Administration

12 décembre 2022

In the aftermath of the November midterm elections, there has been much Washington buzz about potential challengers to Donald Trump for the 2024 republican party nomination. Trump’s handpicked candidates fared particularly poorly in Senate and House races, in an off-year election that was meant to be a landslide for the GOP.  There is a sense that Trump’s star has faded somewhat, that between his legal jeopardy in multiple criminal and civil investigations, a lackluster launch to his presidential campaign, and his political missteps, Trump’s time may have passed.  In the race to replace Trump at the head of the republican ticket, one name is on every political junkie’s lips: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

It would be a huge mistake to count Trump out at this point.  DeSantis did extremely well in the November elections, and most notably attracted 57% of the Hispanic vote in Florida, far more than his democratic challenger.  DeSantis also has higher favorability polling numbers than the controversial ex-president.  But Trump remains a formidable political force with his party’s rank and file.  Although the trend seems to be moving a bit in DeSantis’s direction, current polling still puts Trump more than twenty points ahead of the Florida Governor with potential republican primary voters.  Trump is currently the only republican who has announced his candidacy. DeSantis is a young man, and he can wait. As Susan Glasser notes in The New Yorker, DeSantis is “probably better viewed as one of Trump’s heirs than as his antithesis.”[1]

But if Trump faltered significantly, or dropped out of the race, DeSantis at this point would seem to be the man/woman to beat within the republican party.  If nominated, he certainly could win the presidency.  Recent polls have DeSantis and President Biden neck and neck, or even give DeSantis an advantage, in a hypothetical 2024 general election matchup.

It would make sense, therefore, to get to know something about Ron DeSantis’s views on international affairs.  After all, it is entirely possible the man may be making American foreign policy in January 2025

It turns out this is a little more of a challenge than one might think. Typically, American presidents and presidential candidates get to the job one of two ways (real estate tycoon and media personality Donald Trump, of course, is a far outlier here).  Many come up through the Senate, and often attain the top job by way of the vice presidency.  As presidential candidates these politicians often have very well-established views on foreign policy.  They have worked in previous administrations or served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SRFC); Biden, for example was Chairman of the SFRC.  Other candidates, on the other hand, run after having served as governor (Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter).  For obvious reasons, they are better known for the domestic political positions and executive leadership abilities than their foreign policy approaches, but the many months between announcing a candidacy and the general election give them ample time to develop and publicize their views on the foreign policy issues of the day.

DeSantis is not there.  He is not yet a candidate, and his one term as governor and six years in the US House of Representatives give us relatively little to go on.  For a state governor, there are a few international issues that might resonate for a domestic electorate, issues the governor might pay special attention to.  Given the importance of the Cuban American population in Florida, for example, we would expect the state’s governor to have commented US relations with its troublesome Caribbean neighbor.  DeSantis was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee during his time in Congress, and so there are a few issues there where we have a sense for his politics.  Generally speaking, though, we can only make educated guesses on many key issues at this point.

A first indictor for where DeSantis might end up is his professional background.  Donald Trump came from far outside the political/government mainstream and cast himself as a disruptor of the “Washington swamp.”  DeSantis has also positioned himself a right-wing culture warrior, first as a founding member of the far right “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives and later as the governor of a state where, in his memorable words, “woke goes to die.”  But unlike Trump, DeSantis has a very conventional CV and has served in the past within what Trump would call the “Deep State.”  DeSantis studied history at Yale University and law at Harvard.  He served as a US Navy lawyer, working first with detainees at Guantanamo Bay and then deploying to Iraq with the Navy SEALS.  He also served as a prosecutor for the US Department of Justice.  Given this background, we might expect him to espouse more mainstream foreign policy views than Trump, at least when republican party politics don’t force his hand.  These views will be conservative but not necessarily wacky.  President DeSantis probably won’t be the American leader to leave NATO.

DeSantis has commented occasionally on foreign policy, and what we’ve seen thus far is on the right end of the spectrum but not necessarily Trumpian.  When he was in the House, he was certainly a hawk on Iran.  In 2015, he authored an op-ed with Senator Tom Cotton on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal with Iran – highly critical of the agreement.  Both Venezuela and Cuba are important for his Floridian constituents and his strident opposition to the regimes in both places comes as no surprise.  During his time in the House during the 2010s, DeSantis was hawkish on supporting Ukraine with military assistance, and tended to downplay Trump’s more outlandish initiatives, for example Trump’s two summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  More recently, DeSantis was critical of Biden’s “weakness” on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the somewhat chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In neither case, did DeSantis question our basic support for either country, as Trump has suggested.  Like many republicans (and democrats) DeSantis is a strong supporter of Israel.  He recently tweeted that he sought to be the most “pro-Israel governor in America.”  We could perhaps expect DeSantis to be more in the mold of former National Security Advisor John Bolton than of Donald Trump.

The big question mark for the future of DeSantis’s foreign policy is the impact of republican party politics on a DeSantis White House.  Trump has on occasion staked out extreme positions, and more reasonable congressional republicans have sometimes been forced to follow the ex-president’s lead.  Further, the MAGA wing of the republican party has outsize influence with many republican voters, with frankly marginal players like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene often stealing the limelight from more measured colleagues.  DeSantis as governor frequently postured in Trumpian ways, particularly around social issues like LGTBQ rights.  If there are particular political pressures coming from the right wing of the republican party, it wouldn’t be surprising to see DeSantis hew as closely as possible to the politically expedient position, irrespective of his more conventional instincts.



Notes :

[1] Susan Glasser, “Trump’s 2024 Campaign So Far is an Epic Act of Self-Sabotage,” The New Yorker, 9 December 2022.
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